Sunday, December 5, 2010

Open Letter to Adolescents Who Feel Alone

I wrote this to a former student of mine after I saw a recent Facebook status: "This year, i was on the varsity football team. My friends call me one of the popular kids. I have 528 friends on Facebook. And I've never felt more alone in my life." It was written to him, but I suspect there's a universality to my reply.
----------------------------------------------------------I know it's not like we've kept in touch beyond (presumably) seeing each others' status updates on Facebook since my wife and I left *****, but seeing your status from this morning, I felt compelled to send you a note.
So here's how I see it. Popularity is about people knowing you and people liking you. It's a nice thing, but it doesn't prevent anyone from feeling lonely, because loneliness is not about how many people you know or whether or not people like you. It's about connection. It's about feeling known and understood and loved. And I think it's probably the case that most adolescents don't really feel that. Mostly, especially boys, they don't express it, but that doesn't mean that they don't feel the same way. Of course, some do feel that kind of connection in their lives and others don't have as much of a need for that kind of deeper connection because they live their lives on the surface. That's not you--you're a young man with more depth than that, and so it's not surprising that you feel alone and that the feeling bothers you.

I don't have any easy answer, but I'll throw some ideas around and you can see if any of them "stick" for you.

Have you seen or heard about the "It Gets Better" campaign where celebrities (and regular people too, I think) are making videos to tell gay teens that it gets better (and how it gets better)? The thing is, regardless of whether one is gay or straight, adolescence is often a tough time. Thanks to puberty, you've got quite a few years where your body and brain are hopped up on hormones and your brain and body are still developing, and at the same time you're trying to navigate a social world that's filled with people who are also going through those physical and mental changes, many of whom are still more immature than you are. But it gets better: you and your peers grow up, your body and mind, even if you're still growing, settle into a sort of equilibrium. You and your peers get better at forming real connections with each other, and more of your peers recognize the need for that.

That leads me to another thought--you've probably heard it said that girls mature faster than boys. In the first place, it's true, and in the second place, when it comes to emotional things, girls are just flat-out more attuned to the emotional world. That's why, I think, a lot of more "sensitive" guys, deeper guys, tend to have more meaningful friendships with girls than with other guys when they're in high school. And that can be one of the difficulties of going to an all-boys school: fewer people are at the stage in their lives where they "get it." But it gets better.

I'm also reminded of a passage from Thoreau's book Walden: "We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers." In other words, there's something lonelier about being around lots of people--and I think this is true even in the virtual sense, looking at all these "friends" on Facebook--when you see all these people and you don't feel connected with them. For Thoreau, he feels less lonely when he's actually alone than when he's out among people, and I think that points to something else: when it comes down to it, the most important source of happiness you have is yourself. That is, you need to be comfortable with yourself, you need to be happy with your own choices, you need to have something to do that makes you happy, that inspires you. That's not to say that relationships aren't important, that other people shouldn't be a source of happiness: family, close friends, and casual friends in the right circumstances all contribute to a happy life, but it starts with you.

And here's the thing. Yeah, it's true that I don't really know you, I'm not claiming to have some great insight into who you are or evn to know who you are. But from what I did know about you, you've got a lot going for you. I firmly believe that you've got the tools you need to make a good life for yourself--and for those around you.

I don't know whether any of this helps. In the strictest sense, you didn't ask for my opinions or my advice, except in the sense that by putting yourself out there on your Facebook status, you were asking for something from somebody. So I hope that, in some sense, this helps. If you want to talk about what you're feeling, I'd be happy to listen. I'd be happy to give my two cents, too, or just to listen to what you have to say, whatever you want.

In any case, I wish you the best.


  1. I think that's a perfect response, and I'd have done something similar, myself. One bit of insight for you: adolescent girls often prefer male friends because guys are less petty and spiteful at that age.